Social media: Form of self-help or enabler of self-doubt?

The 2010s are truly the age of the share, whether Instagramming pictures of your breakfast, Facebooking all your friends about your holiday or tweeting a link to your latest blog. Social media has turned us all into broadcasters, producing special-interest programming on every aspect of our lives and thoughts. We are all our own chat show.

But while we gently mock those who overshare or bore on about their children or their dull jobs or impart half-baked political opinions, social media has also given us a window into people’s lives that we’ve never had before. Total strangers upload pictures of themselves in new outfits, on nights out, in fabulous apartments and occasionally – on Naked Sunday, for example – undressed. And we observe, we judge, we aspire. We envy.

Looking at photos used to be restricted to close friends boring you to tears with glossy 5x4s of their holiday to Alicante (“Don’t get fingermarks on them!”) or your mum embarrassing you with childhood snaps, but now we are all willing autobiographers, snapping every moment and flooding the internet with selfies or snaps of our favourite puddings.

But these pictures are not for personal reminisces in our dotage –we know we have an audience out there, so must look our best. ‘Touching up’ is no longer restricted to those who know their way around Photoshop; all manner of apps and programs are now available to ensure we are always ready for our close-up. Blemishes, wrinkles, freckles and folds be gone – our public awaits!

Have you ever noticed that the most prolific snappers seem to have the most remarkable of everything, bodies especially? Six-packs and pert boobies don’t just belong to Hollywood superstars with home gyms at their disposal. Now we all have personal trainers and workout routines and love to post the results of our labours – followed by a sepia-tinted snap of a garish cocktail that we’re having as a reward, of course.

Sculpted pecs, toned arms and bellies you could bounce a nickel off are de rigueur. Whereas the body beautiful seemed only attainable by celebrities and sportsmen and the odd gym-nut who didn’t have a social life, Joe Public is getting in on the act too. But has it always been like this? Are we taking care of ourselves more because we know someone will be watching? Most of us want to look good on the beach or in the bedroom, but do we need to make sure we’re internet-ready too, all too aware that the next comment or retweet could be a cruel remark not a compliment? Keeping up with Joneses isn’t just about nosing over the neighbour’s fence – the world is our Mr and Mrs Jones.

For everyone else back on Planet Normal, balancing work and personal lives means there’s less time than we’d like to work on our hotness or to furnish that apartment to make sure we have the optimal background for all those pictures of us posing next to a colourful salad.

Musclebound gods clutching pornstar martinis in private members’ bars with a couple of models can both inspire and demotivate. Sharing on social media can very easily divide us into the haves and have-nots; the cans and the cannots. Some decide that if these otherwise utterly ordinary Joes can live the high life and look great, then they can do it too. Let’s hit the gym a little harder; let’s say no to those chips; let’s skip that last pint of ale and have a vodka shot instead. And the circle begins again. For others, however, it’s just another enabler to drive them further into despondency and reaching for that family pack of Doritos. Envy is a carbohydrate.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but that isn’t always the case. Mostly, a snap shared by social media tells only a small part of the story. It’s a freeze-frame, aesthetically buffed and primped, and shared only because the subject or the observer thinks it paints them in a positive light. They are sharing a look, not their minds. As the blemishes are airbrushed out of existence, it takes personality with it.

Before you look down at your own wobbly belly and become wistful or glance around your dingy hovel with charity shop furniture and feel inferior, think about what you don’t actually see – what aren’t they sharing? They look great, sure, but how do they feel? What do they think? Do they think anything at all?

Amid all their fabulousness, they still have a real life, a mass of insecurities, fears and doubts. Their snap-happy, brainless declarations of amazingness are just another form of comfort-eating, but the buzz is temporary and expensive – looks fade fast and martinis don’t come for free. Your mind and your personality, however, are yours alone and, if you’re lucky, will always be with you.

Don’t envy the oversharers their wonderful life; pity them that they have to brag about it to feel good.

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  1. Ooooh it’s always about the selfies, and the glamour with you …why do you never highlight the envy people might feel having read clever and witty blogposts? ……Oh

    Also, I enjoy seeing pictures of people looking attractive and with gym trained bodies, or commenting on their purchase of designer clothing for their dog – if that’s what they are proud of then good for them for putting it on show.
    This business of being envious always looks like a media meme to me – it makes a great ‘us against them’ story – it reads well and is aimed at people who read. It’s always the easy targets too – no-one ever seems to complain about Mary Beard oversharing her wonderful classics knowledge when she brags about it in an article on Roman Life. Social media is for people to talk about their lives however they want and the really really good thing about it is if you don’t like what they have to say you can ignore, block, or switch off.

    1. You’re right, of course – there’s a reason people share like this. And I’m not necessarily criticising it or positioning myself above it; I’m just musing on what it means and whether it makes us change our behaviours. Do we share for our own benefit or for others’? It interests and confuses me in equal measure.

      But as you say, if we don’t like what people are sharing, we can very easily block, ignore, or switch off. And yet somehow we feel unable. We’re never quite ready to turn away, are we?

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